The 2017 Golden Globes featured one legit surprise: Isabelle Huppert looking so genuinely, uncontainably excited she could barely breathe. Since the awards season began in early December, the French thespian has scooped up nearly every Best Actress trophy, due to her aces work as a disturbingly calm rape victim in Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle.” Now she’s added a Globe to the pile, which will almost certainly have an Oscar perched on top of it by February’s end.
But perhaps you’re not sure why Isabelle Huppert beaming a girlish smile and skipping to the stage to claim her prize could be called “surprising.” Perhaps you’re not even sure who Isabelle Huppert is. The big awards tend to go to famous faces. We get excited for their stories, like last year, when the possibility of Leo finally getting his Oscar became tabloid clickbait. If they aren’t known, then their ascendency to fame from obscurity is the story.
Huppert’s story is neither of these. She’s not so well-known in the States, at least to casual moviegoers, who probably never bothered with her occasional American films (“Dead Man Down,” “I Heart Huckabees,” "The Bedroom Window"). They probably don’t even remember that time she was on a 2010 episode of “Law and Order: SVU” that also boasted Sharon Stone.
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But in Europe and to even semi-regular patrons of the art house, Isabelle Huppert is a god — one of the great legends of the French cinema. The reason it's so surreal seeing her happy is that she's almost never happy onscreen, and if she is — as in parts of "Elle," in which she smiles after fantasizing bloody ends for her attacker — it's not for pleasant reasons. Since the 1970s, she's been a fearless performer, primarily cherished for two qualities: a) her willingness to do just about any transgressive act on-screen, for just about any daring filmmaker, and b) her deeply intimidating, bone-chilling vibe. She is, indeed, arguably the screen’s reigning ice queen; if she and Charlotte Rampling ever play sisters, the world may freeze over. (In fact, now that we think about it, a “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” remake with Huppert and Rampling would do the world good right about now.)
Where might you have seen her? Perhaps in one of the three (soon four) films she’s made with Michael Haneke. The severe, sometimes scolding Austrian hellion gave her the lead in “The Piano Teacher,” an art house shocker in 2001 that found her alternately sadistic and masochistic. It was, in short, the perfect Huppert role. She got to coldly insult her younger lover, her mother and especially her pupils. At one point she even slips broken glass into the coat pocket of one of her untalented young charges, ensuring that she’d gouge her hand and never play again. In a weird way, though, she did it out of love: Better to be forced to quit now than suffer the indignities of failure ahead.
Huppert won Best Actress at Cannes for the role, and has since reunited with Haneke for his apocalyptic romp “Time of the Wolf,” played the daughter in the Oscar-winning “Amour” and is set to appear in his next film, the cheekily named “Happy End.” Huppert loves forging director-star teams. Her most famous pairing was with Claude Chabrol, starting with 1978’s “Violette Noziere,” and continuing through “Story of Women,” “La Ceremonie” (for which she won the Cesar, aka the French Oscar) and “Merci Pour le Chocolat.” Her film with South Korean genius Hong Sang-soo (2012’s “In Another Country”) was so fruitful that it’s no shock she’s set to do it again (with “Claire’s Camera,” allegedly due this year).
Huppert also naturally gravitates towards the world's wildest filmmakers. It’s amazing it took her till 2013 to make a film with the scandalous Catherine Breillat (with “Abuse of Weakness”), and she got genius/tyrant Maurice Pialat out of the way relatively early in her career, thanks to 1980’a “Loulou.” Of course, one of her few American films was one of the great Hollywood disasters: Michael Cimino insisted she be the female lead in “Heaven’s Gate,” to the horror of thankfully helpless execs, who didn’t find her pretty enough. (United Artists honchos had untold legitimate concerns about the production, but this one's insane.) And of course she was drawn to David O. Russell in his early, crazy days, and on the film (“I Heart Huckabees”) where he exploded on Lily Tomlin while a camera was running.
Huppert’s chilly shtick makes her an alien planet unto herself, even in the rich universe of Euro cinema. She’s not often seen hobnobbing onscreen with other French goddesses. One exception is 2001’s “8 Women,” Francois Ozon’s femme-only musical pastiche, in which she was the angry, bespectacled one railing against the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Fanny Ardant, Danielle Darrieux, Virginie Ledoyen and Ludivine Sagnier.
Still, Huppert’s iciness is ever so slightly overstated. It’s not all she has. A large part of why she’s so scary, so electric is that she also comes off as girlish, even amused. She always looks like she’s thinking of a private joke she’d never share with anyone. There’s a fiery intelligence underneath her slightly smirking facade, which is one of the reasons why she’s the only actress who could ever make “Elle” work.
“Elle” is a great but also dodgy film, perhaps the most messed-up movie Paul Verhoeven has ever made, which is saying something. (Forget “Showgirls” and “Basic Instinct” and go back to such early monocle-destroyers as “Turkish Delight” and “Spetters.”) But Verhoeven seems to have known that simply casting Huppert would both smooth the story out and suss out its nuances. He’s spoken about not telling her how to react to certain situations, and the film is almost more a documentary portrait of Huppert than a character study of someone struggling, in unpredictable and often borderline offensive ways, with trauma. It’s the director and star as dynamic duo.
It’s also not the only film from last year for which Huppert has scored awards. Released within weeks of “Elle,” at least in America, was Mia Hansen-Love’s also excellent “Things to Come,” in which she plays a philosophy professor whose life falls apart: first she loses her husband (to a younger woman), then a big gig, then her mother (to death). It finds Huppert in a very different register: She’s not cruel at all, and she even cries at one point, which rarely happens.
And yet Huppert is still very Isabelle Huppert. Her plagued professor is still steely, and she still glides through life no matter how hard it hits her. The ideal Huppert character has the mental constitution of a hundred superheroes. Her face forever tells you, no matter what, she’s got this. That’s why we’re not afraid how she’ll handle the Oscar race. If anyone can withstand nonsense questions from Jenna Bush, it’s her.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge